A recent newspaper article by a singer and writer who lives in Brooklyn caught my eye. Alina Simone and her band perform in night clubs and for private parties. During a break in a recent performance, a man came up to her and said, "I just thought you might like to know that a friend I brought to your last show changed her name."
"Interesting," said Alina Simone.
"I thought you might like to know because she changed her name to Alina Simone."
She chuckled and said, "Well, I hope that's working out for her." But the news rattled around inside of her. What she did not share with the man was that twelve years ago, she had changed her own name to Alina Simone.
Her decision to change her name was motivated by the fact that she wanted to overhaul her life. She was unhappy with who she was and the direction she was heading. Thinking back on who she used to be, Alina says she was "an entirely different person, not altogether likable, whose singular distinguishing characteristic was the chronic inability to follow through with anything she said she would do."
One day, it all came to a head. She writes, "I changed my name and it changed me. In my new incarnation as Alina Simone, I had no reputation, no history of unmet expectations, nothing to lose...I poured my best self into my new name." Today, pondering the way her name change helped revamp her life, she wondered if the new Alina Simone would experience the same success in improving on the old model.
Her curiosity prompted her to ask around until she located the woman who had changed her name. The two met for coffee, and as the newer Alina Simone poured out her story, it became apparent that she too was in the process of reconstructing her life.1
In today's lectionary reading from the Gospel of Mark, we find John the Baptist sloshing around in the Jordan River offering people the opportunity to acquire a new identity. He preached the message that past mistakes can be overcome. He roared, "You can be liberated from destructive behavior or any impediment that prevents you from experiencing the rich, full life God calls you to live."
What was his formula? Did he recommend we go to court to have our name legally changed? Did he suggest we pack up all of our possessions and seek citizenship in a new country? Did he suggest dying our hair a new color (even if there's not much left)? While any of these might help us re-imagine ourselves, the wilderness prophet had something else in mind. The gospel writers call it a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sin.
Whenever I talk about sin, I become anxious. That's because some immediately erect walls of resistance. A voice inside protests, "Don't you try to lay a guilt trip on me; I'm not so bad." These folks are on-guard for finger-pointing and condemnation, as well they should be. Another reason I get nervous speaking of sin is because many have been taught that sin is the essence of who we are and I do not want to endorse that idea. Our core identity is that we are created in the image of God. Sin often distorts our basic nature, but sin is not the essence of who we are. A third reason I become apprehensive talking about sin is because most have such a narrow view of it. This limited understanding views sin as either doing something bad or failing to do what is right. That's true, but doesn't go far enough. The Bible describes sin in broader terms. Sometimes sin is being in bondage to a power beyond us. Paul says, "I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate...I can will what is right, but I cannot do it." (Romans 7:15-18).
On other times the Bible describes sin as idolatry; giving our primary allegiance to something other than God - work, wealth, sports; there are many imposters. The Bible also describes sin as blindness. Typically it points to our instant recognition of failings in others, while remaining clueless about our own shortcomings.
Some portraits of John the Baptist picture him as a fire and brimstone preacher intent on frightening people by threatening them with eternal punishment. He may have been such a crank, but Mark's gospel says nothing of the sort. This picture may stem from the fact that John was determined to provoke a crisis in people's lives. Like Alina Simone, who one day faced her warts and realized it was time for a makeover, John the Baptist pushed people to make an honest assessment of their lives. He cajoled them to crawl out of their well-worn ruts by promising a new identity; an identity in which they would form a partnership with God in rebuilding and revitalizing their lives.
In his letter to the church in Rome, Paul speaks of baptism as dying and rising with Christ. He says we are united with Christ in a death like his so that we will be united in a resurrection like his. His words anticipate eternal life; however his chief focus is our earthly life. When we commit ourselves to Christ, we die to destructive habits so that we may live in new ways - Christ-like ways.
A South American pastor named Juan Carlos Ortiz uses the following baptismal formula: "I kill you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. And I make you born anew to love and serve the Lord." I suspect John the Baptist would shout "Outstanding!" then do a swan dive into the Jordan River!
Our baptism reminds us that we must die to certain ways of living in order to be resurrected to new ways of being. We are to die to callousness, selfishness and deception so that we can embody compassion, generosity and truth. We are to die to arrogance, hostility and dissension, so that we can embody humility, kindness and peace.
The world hangs all kinds of identities on us - some good, some not so flattering. Always remember that your baptism declared your deepest and truest identity. You are a beloved child of God
Baptism is a one-time event; but it has daily repercussions. Whether we are baptized as an infant or an adult, baptism is the recognition that God claims us and launches us on a spiritual adventure. Yet, each day our baptism is tested by the numerous choices we face.
When we encounter someone who is hurting - he/she could be ill, having financial difficulties, dealing with a loss, wrestling with a broken relationship - whatever the case; when we encounter someone who is hurting, we face choices of how we will respond. Will we minimize the person's pain or will we take the time to listen to what the person needs to share? Will we snatch the opportunity to pour out our own misery or will we express our sympathy and willingness to help?
Each day is filled with choices: How will we spend our time? How will we respond to others? What values will we claim? Will we ponder our blessings or focus on regrets? Will we face the future with a spirit of hope or will we dread its unfolding.
As a follower of Christ, our baptism reminds us that God is constantly urging us to claim our true identity by embracing new and exciting ways of living that are characterized by love, joy, and generosity; by justice, forgiveness and peace; by thankfulness, courage and hope.
Danish theologian, Soren Kierkegaard, told a story about a flock of barnyard geese in Denmark. The geese enjoyed a very comfortable life on their farm. They had plenty to eat and the barn was warm on cold winter days. It was a secure life as goose life goes.
Once a week, all the geese on this farm would gather at one end of the feeding trough and one of them, the one they called the "preaching goose," would struggle to the top of a fence. These barnyard geese had forgotten how to fly. The preaching goose would tell them how wonderful it was to be a goose; how much better it was to be a goose than to be a chicken or a turkey. He would go on and on about their great goose heritage and then he would close with soaring words about goose potential, all the marvelous possibilities of their future as geese.
Occasionally, when the preaching goose was talking, a flock of wild geese would fly overhead. They would be winging their way from Sweden to the south of France, flying thousands of feet in the air in their perfect V-formation. Whenever this happened, all the barnyard geese would grow very excited. They would look up at the wild geese and point and say to each other, "That's who we really are. We're geese! We weren't created to waddle around this old barnyard; we were meant to fly." Then the wild geese would disappear from sight and all would be silent. The barnyard geese would look at each other; they would look around at their familiar barnyard. They would talk about how the farmer brings them their food and how their barn is nice and warm. And they would go back to waddling around their old barnyard.2
The barnyard geese knew their true identity, but they failed to claim it. They just waddled around each day even though they were meant to fly. What a waste.
May the same never be said of you.
1. Alina Simone, "Want a New You? Change Your Name," in the New York Times, December 26, 2011)
2. As told by Michael Lindvall, "Getting Off the Ground," May 23, 2010.
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